Top: Bui Van Trung (left), Bui Van Tham (center), and Le Thi Hen (right) Bottom: Bui Thi Bich Tuyen (left) Nguyen Hoang Nam (center), and Le Hong Hanh (right)

© Dao Trang Ut Trung

(New York) – Vietnam should suspend charges against six Hoa Hao Buddhist followers and investigate whether police actions against them were taken for discriminatory reasons or religious persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. Criminal trials for the six on public order charges are scheduled for February 9, 2018, before the People’s Court in An Phu district, An Giang province.

The arrests stem from a public demonstration the defendants staged to protest police actions against believers in An Giang who were on their way to commemorate the death of a religious leader’s mother. Police have frequently harassed independent members of this religious minority, which has a long history of friction with the government.

“This appears to be the latest instance of official persecution of members of this religion,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit.”

The government should stop harassing and arresting those who belong to unsanctioned religious groups and leave people to practice their faith as they see fit.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The accused include Bui Van Trung, also known as Ut Trung, 54; his wife Le Thi Hen, 56; his daughter Bui Thi Bich Tuyen, also known as Lai, 36; his son Bui Van Tham, 31; Nguyen Hoang Nam, also known as Teo, 36; and Le Hong Hanh, 41.

On the evening of April 18, 2017, traffic police and men in civilian clothes set up a checkpoint near Bui Van Trung’s house in An Phu district, An Giang province, to stop independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers who came to attend the anniversary commemoration of Bui Van Trung’s mother’s death. The police did not cite them for traffic violations but confiscated their papers. Men in civilian clothes cursed and threatened to beat them while traffic police did not intervene. This appeared to follow a pattern of plainclothes ‘thugs’ being used by police for intimidation.

The next morning, traffic police and men in civilian clothes again set up the checkpoint. The traffic police instructed men in civilian clothes to impound the motorbikes of Mai Thi Dung, a former political prisoner, and of another Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, who were both stopped at the checkpoint, though neither were cited for any traffic violations. When Bui Van Trung’s son Bui Van Tham tried to stop the men from taking the motorbikes, they beat him.

In response, Bui Van Trung and dozens of Hoa Hao Buddhist followers then staged a public demonstration to protest government repression. Bui Van Tham was later charged with “disrupting public order” under article 245 of the criminal code and “resisting people on public duty” under article 257. The other five were charged with “disrupting public order.”

Founded in 1939 by Huynh Phu So, Hoa Hao is a Buddhist sect based in the western Mekong delta. Communist antipathy toward the Hoa Hao dates from the first Indochina war (1946-1954) when many members of the Hoa Hao community opposed the communist-led Viet Minh after the spiritual leader of the religion, Huynh Phu So, never returned from a meeting with communist representatives in 1947. During the second Indochina war (1954-1975), Hoa Hao zones in the western Mekong delta continued to resist the Viet Cong insurgency.

Hostility between the Hoa Hao community and the Communist Party continued after the end of the war in 1975. In 1999, the Vietnamese government recognized Hoa Hao Buddhism as a religion. However, many followers refused to join the state-sanctioned Hoa Hao Buddhist Church. They have been subjected to intrusive surveillance and repression. Every year, local police have used various means to prevent independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers from gathering for important events such as the founding day of the religion or the anniversary of the death of the Hoa Hao founder Huynh Phu So. The authorities have repeatedly set up barriers to block the Quang Minh pagoda in Cho Moi district (An Giang province), which is often used by independent Hoa Hao followers for worshipping.

Bui Van Trung turned his house into an informal home church (dao trang) for independent Hoa Hao Buddhist followers in 2005 and preached the religion to practitioners who gathered at his house on numerous occasions without government approval.

Since then, his family has suffered intrusive surveillance, harassment, and intimidation on a regular basis. In April 2012, the local authorities cut off their electricity, threw rocks and rotten fish at their house, and sprayed water to prevent people from gathering at Bui Van Trung’s house. Local police beat several people, Bui Van Trung told a reporter at Radio Free Asia. In May 2013, the authorities harassed, intimidated, and assaulted many of the people who tried to attend the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of his mother’s death.

His family members have also been imprisoned. In July 2012, Bui Van Tham was arrested for “resisting people on public order” under article 257 of the penal code. He was convicted and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. In October 2012, Bui Van Trung was arrested on the same charge. He was sentenced to four years in prison. In February 2014, Bui Van Trung’s son-in-law Nguyen Van Minh was arrested for a bogus traffic violation, charged with “disrupting public order” under article 245, and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. A bogus traffic violation was also used to arrest of Nguyen Van Lia, another independent Hoa Hao leader, in 2011.

In Vietnam, more than 100 political prisoners are currently locked up simply for exercising their basic rights. Rights bloggers and activists face police harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and interrogation on a daily basis. Activists face long stints of pre-trial detention, without access to lawyers or family in a one-party police state that brooks no dissent.

In recent years, there have been numerous incidents of protest and government attacks centering on Hoa Hao believers. In August 2005, after one serious crackdown, a Hoa Hao Buddhist follower, Tran Van Ut, burned himself to death in protest. A dozen of Hoa Hao Buddhist activists were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison. In May 2017, Vinh Long police arrested Nguyen Huu Tan, an independent Hoa Hao Buddhist practitioner, on charges of conducting propaganda against the state. Police later claimed he committed suicide with a knife left in the interrogation room by a policeman. His family protested, pointing out many discrepancies between what they saw on his body and a blurry police video recording shown to them briefly.

Most recently, on January 23, 2018, the People’s Court of An Giang province convicted Hoa Hao Buddhist activists Vuong Van Tha, his son Vuong Thanh Thuan, and his twin nephews, Nguyen Nhat Truong and Nguyen Van Thuong, to between six and 12 years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state” under article 88.

At least 129 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for expressing critical views of the government, taking part in peaceful protests, participating in religious groups not approved by the authorities, or joining civil or political organizations that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam deems threatening to its monopoly on power. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.

“Three members of Bui Van Trung’s family served prison sentences simply because they refused to practice their religion under the control of the state,” Adams said. “And now it looks like the authorities are putting him and his family members on trial for the same reason.”